FERGUS FINLAY: Demonisation of ESB union leader Ogle does him an injustice

YOU might want to avert your ears. At the very least, it might be advisable to ask your maiden aunts to leave the room. I’m going to say one of those things you’re not allowed to say.

It’s the sort of thing you have to whisper — the kind of remark one should avoid in polite company. I’ve found in the past that it’s one of those things you should only say if you’re prepared to put up with dog’s abuse, especially in the letter columns of decent respectable newspapers like this one.

But you’ve been warned, so here goes. Brendan Ogle is a decent man. There, I’ve said it. And now that it’s out in the open, I might as well go further. He does a right good job of representing his own people, and if every representative of people — both public and private — was as committed and honest as he is, we’d all be better off.

Ok, I have broad shoulders. If you need to have a go at me because I don’t buy the argument that Brendan Ogle represents everything that’s bad and evil, I can take it. At least you’ll be secure in the knowledge that any abuse you heap on me won’t make the industrial relations situation at the ESB any worse.

I’m relieved, as I’m sure we all are, that the electricity strike has been averted. I had been preparing, with a bit of a heavy heart, to defend Brendan from attack as power blackouts got closer. There are two reasons I believe he deserves a defence, and one reason he doesn’t.

First of all, I hate the demonisation that always goes on at times like this. Brendan Ogle is a trade union official, with a job to do. It’s not a popular job — and nobody ever seems to remark on the fact that he’s been involved in around a decade of industrial peace in the ESB, at a time when there has been enormous cost-cutting and restructuring. He’s the secretary of a group of unions, whose combined members voted by more than 80% to take strike action over the threat to their pension schemes.

None of that seems to matter when the strike is actually in the offing. Then it’s time to get out the “good, bad and ogle” headlines. If reporters search hard enough, they’ll find colleagues of Ogle’s who are willing to badmouth him and personalise the whole issue around him. And suddenly we’re not arguing about the rights and wrongs of a dispute — we’ve found someone to blame.

There’s an injustice in this. I got to know Brendan Ogle years ago, when he was a train driver and a representative of other train drivers. The train strike he was ultimately involved in then, which was about basic conditions of employment for a badly-treated group of people, made him a bit of a household name — and a byword for trouble. Eamon Dunphy, for example, launched a very personal and abusive attack on Ogle during his radio show.

But all he was, was steadfast in his defence of his own members. And, strange as it seems for such a legendary trouble-maker, that was the only real strike he was ever involved in — at least until it seemed the ESB might grind to a halt. But now, again, he’s a dangerous bogeyman, according to one newspaper, a dinosaur according to another. One distinguished columnist even devoted several hundred words to speculating about his underwear, apparently to suggest that he lacked the bits and pieces that most men keep in their pants (don’t ask me, I couldn’t follow it either).

The second reason I’d have been happy to defend him is that there was a good deal of justice behind the argument he has been making. Without knowing all the technical details, it seemed clear enough that the ESB had engaged in quite a bit of jiggery-pokery in relation to the company pension scheme. ESB workers may seem privileged to some, but they are in a very odd position when it comes to pensions, because they are debarred from getting the state old age pension. If they don’t get a pension from their employer, they don’t get a pension, full stop.

There are other people in the same position — but they’re all full public servants. Imagine what would happen if the government of the day were suddenly to announce to every teacher in the country, or every nurse or fireman, that they were no longer prepared to guarantee their pensions? There is no doubt in my mind that if the government were suddenly, and at the stroke of a pen, to remove the guarantee of a pension from their employees, there would be wholesale and immediate industrial action.

Public service pensions, of course, are paid from current exchequer revenue. We don’t think of the State as “trading”, but it has been operating at a hell of a loss in recent years. Despite that, the State has never thought of removing the pension guarantee. It’s hard to figure out how the ESB felt justified in doing so.

However, I did say there was also a reason for not defending him. The fact that I might respect Brendan Ogle, and think he has a lot of right on his side, doesn’t mean that I always think he’s right. After he made a rather daft speech to the Eirigi organisation, I sent him a text suggesting that sometimes trouble comes when you engage your mouth a few minutes before your brain.

And if this strike had happened, it would have been disastrously wrong. Wrong for the union members involved, wrong for the company, wrong for Ireland. It could have caused hardship that was totally incommensurate with the issue, and done immense reputational damage. We can all now heave a sigh of relief that it isn’t going to happen. I’m guessing that behind the scenes a lot of work had to be done to get this dispute back into the kind of technical discussion and negotiation that was necessary. I suspect Ogle played his part in reaching a resolution — and some will now accuse him of doing “the Grand Old Duke of York” as a result.

Behind it all, there’s a deeper point. Throughout the last few years, there has been a consistent rolling back of standards. Things that ordinary people felt entitled to — a bit of job security, some kind of guarantee around the pension, ordinary decent working conditions — have all begun to disappear.

It may be that a line was crossed in respect of the ESB pension, and Brendan Ogle and his members decided to say “enough is enough”. You’d wonder how many more lines are being crossed? Not just in terms of pay and conditions, but in the services we need, the dignity we’re all entitled to? How many more rows are there going to be because ordinary people have had enough? How can we guarantee a stable future if we don’t talk to each other and respect each other?

In short, instead of vilifying people like Brendan Ogle, isn’t it time we started listening again?

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